Amnesty International Comes Down on the INS

The Immigration and Naturalization Service is detaining people on routine visa violations and holding them for weeks or months until the Federal Bureau of Investigation "clears" them, an unusual process "shrouded in secrecy," according to Amnesty International.

In November, the INS admitted to detaining 1,200 people. The exact number now in custody is not known, however, because many additional immigrants have been rounded up and released since then.

On March 23, members from at least 30 unions rallied in front of a federal detention center where an estimated 40 Pakistani and other Muslim immigrants swept up after September 11 are being held. They joined the 150 or so regulars who’ve been protesting the secrecy, unlimited detentions and violation of the due process rights of foreign detainees every Saturday since January 26.

Michael Letwin, president of the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, led the labor contingent. He told the crowd of several hundred: "Today there is literally a wave of terror against Middle Easterners and South Asians. There are at least 300 who remain in custody. These kinds of acts that so clearly violate the Constitution are anathema to us."

The demonstration was held one week after an Amnesty International report singled out the federal Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn for violating basic rights under international law in its treatment of September 11 detainees.

Amnesty documented "a disturbing level of secrecy" by the federal agencies detaining people at the MDC and other centers nationwide. Nonetheless, by interviewing 30 lawyers, groups working with the detainees and those released, and detainees’ relatives, Amnesty was able to piece together evidence the U.S. government is ignoring constitutionally protected rights to due process, access to lawyers and prompt filing of charges.

Amnesty also expressed grave concern at the flouting of the rule of law. "Scores of people were held for more than 48 hours," the report says, "and several for more than 50 days, before being charged with a violation." One Saudi Arabian man was held for 119 days before being charged.

The Amnesty report points out that rule changes by the INS—and not last November’s USA Patriot Act—are responsible for the treatment of some detainees. The Justice Department told immigration judges in September to restrict information and close hearings in "special cases," including "confirming or denying whether such a case is on the docket."

A new INS regulation also allows the service to override immigration judges’ decision to grant bail, a practice that "undermines the principle of the separation of powers between the executive and the judiciary," according to Amnesty.

Amnesty found troubling cases of detainment in 26 states, though most detainees are in New York and New Jersey. Among its findings: MDC staff told the wife of a detainee her husband was not there, even though she had received letters from him postmarked from the facility; staff illegally barred her from visiting him; more than 40 detainees may be confined to cells for 23 hours a day; and 19 MDC detainees did not have lawyers as of late 2001, leading one man to go on a hunger strike.

The Amnesty report also found numerous instances since September in which the government has not informed families and lawyers of where detainees are imprisoned or when they are moved. Detainees have been prevented from posting bail, held even after bail is posted, and denied the right to counsel. Others were "obstructed in their ability to make phone calls." As it is, MDC detainees are allowed only one phone call per week: If there is no answer at the law office, they must wait another week to try again.

Most of the detainees the government has admitted to rounding up are Pakistani (207), followed by Egyptians (74), Turks (46) and Yemenis (38). However, the INS has created a category of "inactive" detainees about which it refuses to release information. While Amnesty gained limited access to the New Jersey county jails, the MDC in Brooklyn refused to allow investigators entry.

Racial profiling of the sort seen since September violates international law, the report charges. "There is also concern that statements made by the government purporting to link routine immigration cases with potential terrorism may fuel anti-immigrant sentiments and contribute to a wider backlash," it says.

Imtiaz Rahi has been coming to the demonstrations every week with a small contingent from the Pakistani American Society of Long Island. He was happy to see the number of allies growing because, in his community, "People are scared. They want to come out, but they’re scared."


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